By Camille van Niekerk
Regardless of how frequently you take voice lessons, you’re on your own for the majority of time you spend practicing! As a private voice teacher, I always tell my students that at most, they’ll see me once a week. So for the other six days, they have to be their own coach!
Being your own coach means setting realistic goals for yourself, motivating yourself, celebrating your progress, listening to yourself with an objective ear, and learning about the voice so you can correct any mistakes you hear.
If you’re overwhelmed, consider a voice lesson to get you started! Explain to your teacher that you’d like to practice on your own but would like some advice and tools to jumpstart your singing. If you get stuck weeks, months, or even years down the road, you can check back in with your teacher to help refine your technique and set some new goals for self-study!
Maybe you know exactly where to start. If you need some ideas, the list that follows is based on years of working with voice students, and the most common areas we work on!
1. Listen, listen, listen.
If you have a voice teacher you visit regularly, you can rely on their ears. But if you’re studying on your own, it’s up to you! Listen to yourself objectively: listen for things you’re doing well, and things that could be improved. Listen to other singers (ideally those with healthy technique) and learn from them. Watch live video of artists and start learning the connection between what you see and what you hear (vowels, space, posture, etc.).
2. Be vigilant about your posture.
Posture is the foundation for all other elements of your technique! Practice standing, feet hips’ distance apart, spine elongated, shoulders relaxed down, chest and ribcage lifted, head balanced above the spine and chin level with the ground.
3. Train (or retrain) your breathing.
While breathing with a relaxed belly is natural (babies do it!), it doesn’t come naturally for most singers. Train yourself to breathe in a way that allows for the belly, ribs, and back to expand. The belly muscles need to be relaxed to move freely! And the chest should stay tall and proud, but it shouldn’t lift with the inhale.
4. Develop your different vocal registers.
Vocal fry, chest voice, mixed voice, head voice, falsetto, and whistle are the six commonly accepted vocal registers. Most singers don’t need to worry about whistle or spend too much time with fry. But ALL singers should develop good tone and stability in chest voice, mixed voice, and head voice/falsetto.
5. Relax your jaw!
Most beginning singers use a very closed mouth position to sing, and often tense their jaw to control the sound (particularly when they sing outside their comfort zone). A relaxed jaw will do wonders for your tone and comfort while singing! Practice in front of a mirror so you can visualize what your jaw is doing.
Dont' forget to check out our tutorial on daily practice routines below.
6. Find a healthy level of compression to sing with.
We all have different styles, and that’s fine! But if you only sing loudly (or only sing softly), find a middle ground so that you can sing with dynamic variety. Both high-pressure and weak/breathy singing can have a negative impact on your vocal health and abilities.
7. Become a student of resonant space and tone quality.
Learn about your resonators (primarily the throat and mouth), and the different ways in which you can change your tone by modifying the amount of resonant space.
8. Line up your vowels.
Learn pure vowel sounds and train your voice to maintain a consistently beautiful tone, regardless of vowel or pitch! Learn about vowel modification to help you out in challenging areas of your registers.
9. Work towards high notes (and range extension) gradually.
To sing higher than you’re currently singing, you first need adequate space: in the throat (for the folds to stretch) and in the mouth to resonate. Then, your vocal folds need to be trained to gradually stretch and thin out, while continuing to vibrate together. Relaxation and patience are your best friends for high notes!
Pushing, tensing, or slamming air at your vocal folds will not help! Rather, learn to take the pressure off. Relax, lift your soft palate, drop your jaw. And if it gets really high, use an SOVT (a semi-occluded vocal tract technique), like singing through a straw or using a lip trill to get some helpful back pressure on your vocal folds. Some singers also benefit from using a small, focused NG, and gradually opening up to a vowel by dropping the back of the tongue down.
10. Identify excess tension and find a solution that works for you.
Singers tense their jaw, tongue, neck, abdomen, and probably other areas too! Excess tension will not help your sound. Work on maintaining good posture and breath support while you relax the muscles that are tensing.
11. Be patient and consistent.
A little bit of practice every day will give you results over time! Aim for about 20 minutes a day; but if you only have 5 minutes, use them well!
12. Take care of your vocal (and physical) health.
They’re connected! Exercise, sleep and eat well, drink lots of water, and avoid things that can hurt your voice, like excess yelling, smoke, and alcohol. If you have persistent vocal issues, see your doctor! They may refer you to an ENT or otolaryngologist to get scoped and see what’s going on.
13. Train your ears for better intonation.
Check out this article for 8 recommended ear training apps and websites: https://blog.landr.com/best-ear-training-apps/
14. Don’t just sing vocal exercises. Work on songs, too!
Find songs in a key that’s comfortable for your voice (or move them into your ideal key). Choose songs at a variety of difficulty levels, so you can work on different skills and don’t get discouraged with endlessly challenging material.
15. Record yourself!
When you listen back, take note of things you did well and things to keep working on. I know it’s scary to listen to yourself. But you’re not alone: most people hate the sound of their own voice (in the beginning)! That’s why you’ve got to be an objective listener.
Your point of comparison is not a professional singer, or a friend with a naturally nice voice, or the person singing next to you in choir. It’s yourself last month, or last year! Keep yourself encouraged and motivated by comparing where you are today with where you started.
If you feel you need some outside advice and encouragement, book a lesson with a voice teacher, or reach out to a more experienced singer for their help. Occasionally checking in with a professional coach or mentor can help keep you moving forward in your self-study.
Never forget: singing should remain FUN. It’s a wonderful creative outlet and break from the stresses of work or school. When it stops being fun, you won’t be motivated to keep going. So keep it fun for yourself, even if that means taking a break from actively challenging your vocal skills for a while. Singing is a lifelong pursuit! Keep that in mind so it remains a source of joy.